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Written in 1954, Benjamin Britten's opera based on Henry James' tale, written in 1898, is a story with a sinister undertone. In this film of the opera we return to the late 19th Century setting of the original story, Fulbeck Hall in Lincolnshire. The ghostly atmosphere of the music is perfectly re-created by clever lighting techniques and faded colours of the costumes.
Visual inspiration is from the photographic work of Julia Margaret Cameron, Munch, Strindberg and the early Spiritualists. The result is a world where the boundaries between the living and the dead are chillingly blurred.
“This film was much lauded when shown on BBC2. Katie Mitchell's arresting production opens up the story, taking it into the countryside and producing spooky and louring images to create the mysterious and dangerous aura of Bly, which does no harm to the intentions of Henry James and Benjamin Britten. Mitchell allows the characters' interior monologues to be heard while the singers' mouths remain closed – especially apt for the role of the Governess. For about two-thirds of the work the director keeps within the boundaries stipulated by Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, making us fully aware of the ambiguities of the participants and their relationships. But in the third part she rather allows her ideas to get out of hand, the nightmarish images becoming too surreal, especially for the ghosts and the children, although she recovers in time to make the final struggle between the Governess and Quint for Miles's soul an arresting close. We're left, as we should be, uncertain at the state of the Governess's mind and the exact powers of the ghosts. Richard Hickox commands every aspect of the tricky score, lovingly executed by members of his City of London Sinfonia, even if the balance with the singers sometimes goes awry. The cast is splendid. Nicholas Kirby Johnson as Miles achieves just the right balance between innocence and knowingness. His singing is fluent and pointed, as is that of Caroline Wise, a teenage Flora with a lively presence, expressive eyes and a malleable voice. Lisa Milne, unflatteringly garbed, is rather too confident of voice and mien as the Governess. Although she sings with her customary clarity of line and word, she doesn't suggest the nervous vulnerability of Jennifer Vyvyan, who created the role. Diana Montague is a gratifyingly sympathetic Mrs Grose, using body language to convey just the right feeling of apprehension and concern over the fate of her charges. Mark Padmore is among the best of Quints, vocally and histrionically. Catryn Wyn-Davies is a properly wild and scary Miss Jessel. All in all, this is the version to have.”
“Katie Mitchell directs very much in the BBC classic manner… Bly's grand but bleak interiors and iron-grey woodlands splendidly atmospheric. Hickox and his exceptional cast capture beautifully the escalating tension that makes the score so gripping in the theatre. Lisa Milne sings the Governess as finely as any on disc; more plumply prosaic than the usual tormented waif, her growing hysteria is all the more alarming. By contrast Diana Montague's Mrs Grose is unusually tall and patrician, but utterly convincing. Catrin Wyn Davies is a sensuous, eerie Miss Jessel, but Mark Padmore's Quint, though mellifluous, could use more supernatural menace... Caroline Wise and Nicolas Kirkby Johnson as the children, though, are ideal... and they sing with genuine expressive power. ...one of the truest opera films to date.”
“What Katie Mitchell has devised is a highly evocative film to go with a performance of The Turn of the Screw. The result is very different from a conventional staging, with the singers, for much of the time, acting out their roles without being seen...A distinctive version with many great qualities, most of all in presenting the full horror of the story, set against an eerie background.”
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